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Boreal Plains Ecozone+ evidence for key findings summary

Theme: Biomes

Key finding 1
Forests

National key finding
At a national level, the extent of forests has changed little since 1990; at a regional level, loss of forest extent is significant in some places. The structure of some Canadian forests, including species composition, age classes, and size of intact patches of forest, has changed over longer time frames.

Sixty-two percent of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ was classified as forest.Reference 13 Historically, frequent widespread natural disturbances such as fire, insect outbreaks, and wind shaped forest structure in this ecozone+. However, agricultural expansion, forest harvest, and an increase in industrial development have reduced the extent and increased fragmentation in Boreal Plains forests.

Forest type

According to Canada's 2001 National Forest Inventory, 42% of the forests of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ forests were conifer, 37% were deciduous, and 20% were mixedwood.Reference 17 Mixedwood forests are comprised of conifer species (e.g., black spruce, Picea mariana, white spruce, P. glauca, or jack pine, Pinus banksiana) and deciduous species (e.g., trembling aspen, Populus tremuloides). Mixed wood forests are species rich,Reference 18 such as the Central Mixedwood in Alberta,Reference 19 and productive for wildlife, such as Dry Mixedwood forests.Reference 20

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Case study: trembling aspen health

Trembling aspen is the most abundant deciduous tree species in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ and the most important tree in the transition zone between the boreal forest and grassland.Reference 21 It is increasingly important commercially; in 2006, trembling aspen accounted for 86% of hardwood and 31% of total wood (m3) harvested in British Columbia and Alberta.

Concern about climate change, recent aspen dieback (defined as progressive tree death, generally starting at the root, shoot, and branch tips), and reduced growth in aspen stands led to the Climate Change Impacts on Productivity and Health of Aspen research initiative.Reference 22 To better understand trembling aspen health and productivity, researchers determined growth trends via tree ring analysis at 24 sites across Canada's western interior, 15 of which were in the Boreal Plains. They found that drought and insect defoliation resulted in two cycles of reduced growth between 1951 and 2000 (Figure 4). Dieback in a similar study of aspen near Grande Prairie, AB was caused by secondary wood-boring insects and fungal pathogens in trees already affected by insect defoliation and drought coupled with freeze-thaw cycles in years of light snow.Reference 23 Future climate change will increase the frequency of drought and insect defoliation cycles, causing increased dieback, decreased productivity, and decreased CO2 up take.Reference 23

Figure 4. Trends in average stand-level aspen growth in the western Canadian interior from 1950 to 2000.

Based on tree-ring analysis of disks collected at 1.3 m from 432 stems adjacent to plots in the boreal and parkland zones (symbols show estimated average growth of 36 stands within the 12 study areas in each zone).

Error bars are 95% confidence intervals, based on the variation recorded among all 24 study areas. Growth is expressed as annual increment in stem cross-sectional area and is based only on aspen trees that were living in 2000 (growth is underestimated in the early years of the study).

Graph-Trends in average stand-level aspen growth in the western Canadian interior from 1950 to 2000
Source: adapted from Hogg et al., 2005Reference 22
Long description for Figure 4

This line graph shows the following information:

Trends in average stand-level aspen growth in the western Canadian interior from 1950 to 2000. Growth (m2 /ha /yr)
YearBorealParklandAll
19500.20.20.2
19510.30.30.3
19520.30.30.3
19530.30.30.3
19540.30.30.3
19550.40.30.3
19560.40.30.4
19570.40.30.4
19580.40.30.3
19590.50.30.4
19600.60.40.5
19610.50.30.4
19620.40.30.4
19630.40.30.4
19640.40.30.4
19650.50.40.5
19660.50.50.5
19670.60.50.5
19680.60.40.5
19690.50.40.5
19700.70.60.6
19710.70.60.7
19720.60.50.6
19730.70.70.7
19740.70.70.7
19750.70.60.7
19760.90.70.8
19770.80.60.7
19780.80.60.7
19790.60.50.5
19800.50.30.4
19810.40.40.4
19820.50.40.5
19830.60.50.5
19840.50.40.5
19850.80.60.7
19860.90.60.7
19870.80.70.8
19880.80.50.6
19890.70.50.6
19900.60.50.5
19910.70.60.6
19920.60.50.5
19930.60.60.6
19940.70.70.7
19950.60.60.6
19960.80.80.8
19970.91.00.9
19980.90.70.8
19990.70.70.7
20000.60.80.7

Extent

Forest cover is the most common land cover type (62%) in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ (Figure 2, Figure 5).Reference 13 However, forest cover declined by 3% (11,000 km2) between 1985 and 2005 due to fire, forest conversion to agriculture, and oil and gas development.Reference 13 From 1985 to 2005, the area of fire scars in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ increased by 357%, from 2,099 to 9,590 km2.Reference 13 Natural regeneration should result in the successional recovery of these burned areas to forest cover.Reference 13, Reference 24 Nevertheless, forest conversion to other cover types is also occurring. Approximately 5,020 km2 was converted from woodland to cropland, particularly along the southern periphery and in the Peace River region (Figure 6) (refer to Wildlife habitat capacity section for information on the impact of this loss to biodiversity).Reference 13 In more recent years, conventional oil and gas and bitumen exploration and development in Alberta and British Columbia have contributed to deforestation in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.Reference 25 For example, in a 3,906 km2 area within the Athabasca oil sands area, 21% (810 km2) of mostly forested vegetation has been cleared since 1984 for oil and gas development.Reference 26

Figure 5. Forest density in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ as determined by remote sensing, 2000.

Forest density calculated as the proportion of forested pixels (30 m resolution) within each 1 km2 unit.

Forest is classified as >10% tree cover.

Map-Forest density in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ as determined by remote sensing, 2000
Source: adapted from Wulder et al., 2008Reference 27 by Ahern, 2011Reference 13
Long description for Figure 5

This map shows low forest density for a small strip in the south, whereas most of the ecozone+(especially the northern range) has high forest density.

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Figure 6. Conversion from cropland/woodland to cropland from 1985 to 2005 in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.
Map-Conversion from cropland/woodland to cropland from 1985 to 2005 in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.
Source: adapted from Latifovic and Pouliot, 2005Reference 28 by Ahern, 2011Reference 13
Long description for Figure 6

This map shows a very small amount of cropland/woodland in the north-central and southern border of the ecozone+ was converted to cropland.

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Intactness

The intactness of forest ecosystems in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ has been assessed in two different ways. Global Forest Watch measured the amount of undisturbed forest landscapes that were free from visible human impact, at least 50 km2 in size, and at least 500 m from any known human disturbance (buffer width varied depending on the type of human disturbance).Reference 29 By this definition, the extent of intact forest landscapes in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ was 37% as of 2002 (Figure 7). The Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute (ABMI) measured intactness for the Alberta portion of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ by comparing the observed area covered by old-forest habitat versus the expected area of old-growth with no development. Overall, old-forest habitat was 92% intact (i.e., old-forest habitat covered 8% less area than expected).Reference 30

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Figure 7. Intact forest landscape fragments larger than 100 km2 in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+, 2006.

A forest landscape fragment is defined as a contiguous mosaic, naturally occurring and essentially undisturbed by significant human influence. It is a mosaic of various natural ecosystem including forest, bog, water, tundra and rock outcrops.

Map
Source: Lee et al., 2006Reference 31
Long description for Figure 7

This map indicates that much of the north eastern half of the ecozone+ is composed of intact landscape fragments, with some fragments scattered throughout the southern portion of the ecozone+.

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Case study: intactness of old forest habitat in Alberta-Pacific Forest Management Area

The Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute measured habitat intactness and the human footprint of the Alberta-Pacific Forest Management Area (Al-Pac FMA).This area encompasses 57,331 km2,30 and makes up 9.5% of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ in northeastern Alberta.Reference 32 Old-forest habitat in the Al-Pac FMA is 92% intact. That is, it occupies 92% of the area that it would be expected to occupy if there were no human impacts (Figure 8). The human footprint index shows that human influence is evident in 7% of the Al-Pac FMA. Most of the human footprint is due to forestry, energy, and transportation infrastructure. Half of the forestry footprint was created in the last 10 years.Reference 30

Figure 8. Intactness (percent deviation of observed conditions from intactness expected under undeveloped conditions) of old-forest habitats in the Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries Management Agreement Area.
Habitat type and intactness from 142 sites was determined using Provincial Alberta Vegetation Inventory GIS data.Graph-Habitat type and intactness from 142 sites was determined using Provincial Alberta Vegetation Inventory GIS data.

Source: adapted from Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute, 200930
Long description for Figure 8 This bar graph shows the following information:Intactness of old-forest habitats in the Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries Management Agreement Area.Old-forest typeIntactness (%)Area observed (%)Area expected (%)All921921White spruce and fir9344Pine9523Deciduous9178Mixedwood9367

 

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Shift from late-successional to early-successional forest

Similar to other ecozones+, there has been a shift in the forest age class structure from older to younger forests in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.Reference 33 For example, the percentage of Alberta's boreal forest that was over 120 years in age declined from 28% in 1991 to 17% in 1999Reference 24. Remote sensing data from the AMBI provides an indication of the current age-class distribution of managed and unmanaged forests in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ in Alberta (Figure 9). Over 50% of unmanaged forests are at least 80 years old. In contrast, over 50% of managed forests are between 11 and 30 years old. The loss of older age classes, particularly spruce, is a concern for biodiversity.Reference 24 For example, one third of all birds which breed in old boreal forests are specialized for old-growth habitat.Reference 34 The loss of old-forest habitat negatively impacts these old growth specialists, particularly year-round residents which are less abundant than migrants and are often more sensitive to habitat loss.

Figure 9. Current age class distribution of managed and unmanaged forests, 2008.

Summarized from 517 32 km2 Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute systematic landscape sample sites with complete coverage (coverage derived from the Alberta Vegetation Inventory). Unmanaged and managed areas totalled 7,963 km2 and 62 km2 respectively.

Graph
Source: adapted from Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute by Haughland, 2008Reference 33
Long description for Figure 9

This bar graph shows the following information:

Current age class distribution of managed and unmanaged forests, 2008.
Age category (years)Unmanaged
(% of sample area)
Managed
(% of sample area)
0-10-9
11-30452
31-804812
>805434

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The corollary of intactness is fragmentation. Both anthropogenic (e.g., roads, seismic lines, forestry) and natural processes (e.g., fire, insect infestations) result in fragmentation in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.Reference 35, Reference 36 Forests in the Boreal Forest Ecozone+ are becoming increasingly fragmented, particularly in the southern half of this ecozone+ where the majority of human activity is concentrated (Figure 7). Forest fragmentation affects forest patterns in three distinct ways: reducing forest area, increasing isolation of forest remnants, and creating edges. Reference 13 The resulting impacts on biodiversity are complex and species dependent.Reference 34, Reference 37, Reference 38, Reference 39, Reference 40, Reference 41, Reference 42 Examples include declines in Neotropical migrant and resident birds requiring interior boreal forest habitat,Reference 34, Reference 43 Reference 44 declines in species with large area requirements such as grizzly bear and caribou, increases in species that prefer to browse along forest edges such as moose, increased exposure of interior forest species to predators and parasites,Reference 34 disruption of social structure of some species,Reference 45 and barriers to dispersal.Reference 46

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Key finding 2
Grasslands

Theme Biomes

National key finding
Native grasslands have been reduced to a fraction of their original extent. Although at a slower pace, declines continue in some areas. The health of many existing grasslands has also been compromised by a variety of stressors.

The Boreal Plains Ecozone+, though largely forested, does include dry native grassland ecosystems; however, little of these grasslands remain today. Historically, extensive native grasslands were located in the Boreal Transition ecoregion along the southern periphery of the ecozone+, and the Peace Lowland ecoregion in the west of the ecozone+. With settlement and agricultural development in the late 1800s and early 1900s, many of these areas were converted to agricultural use and are currently maintained primarily as cropland and improved range for grazing.Reference 19

Little data exist on the extent and trends of native grasslands in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+. In Manitoba, grassland and rangeland in the ecozone+ declined by 15% between 1986 and 2002.Reference 47, Reference 48 Refer to Agricultural landscapes as habitat section.

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Key finding 3
Wetlands

Theme Biomes

National key finding
High loss of wetlands has occurred in southern Canada; loss and degradation continue due to a wide range of stressors. Some wetlands have been or are being restored.

Wetlands include peatlands, like bogs and fens, and marshes and swamps. Together they covered 108,300 km2 or approximately 15% of the total area of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ in 2005.Reference 17 While trend data are lacking for most of the ecozone+, wetlands have been lost across the region. For example, a comparison of Landsat imagery of land cover between 1986 and 1992 and 2000 and 2002 on a 46,975 km2 region of Manitoba's boreal plains indicated a contraction of water bodies, marshes, and fens. This represented a loss of approximately 15% of marshes and fens and 10% of treed and open bogs in the area.Reference 47 In Saskatchewan, wetlands within the Boreal transition zone declined by 5% from 1985 to 2001 with only 52% of wetlands observed as unused by humans.Reference 49

In the Alberta region of the ecozone+, wetland habitat is generally made up of peatlands (fens, bogs, and conifer swamps). Wetland loss and impairment in this region is a relatively recent phenomenon due to the establishment of conventional oil and gas activity, oil sands development, and operational forest harvesting.Reference 50 While the extent of wetland loss is not well known, cumulative impacts may be high given the rate of industrial activity in the region.Reference 51 As of March 2008, 244 km2 of wetlands (0.2% of wetland cover in the ecozone+) were lost due to industrial activities in the Athabasca oil sands area.Reference 52

In addition to industrial development, climate change compounds impacts on this ecozone+. In general, temperatures have increased and snow precipitation decreased since 1950.Reference 53 Wetlands are sensitive to increases in temperature and precipitation changes, particularly small and/or seasonal wetlands, as they are vulnerable to increased evaporation and reduce inputs through precipitation.

Peace–Athabasca Delta Case Study

The Peace–Athabasca Delta, at over 5,000 km2, is one of the largest inland freshwater deltas in the world.Reference 54 It is designated as a RAMSAR Wetland of International Importance and as an internationally Important Bird Area. Most of the delta lies within Wood Buffalo National Park, a World Heritage Site. Its water distribution is driven by many factors but depends strongly upon sporadic spring floods caused by ice-jams.Reference 55, Reference 56 Once the delta is recharged by these floods it can take many years to dry.Reference 57 The delta's climate, hydrology, and vegetation history are highly variable.Reference 58, Reference 59 Many of the basins adjacent to lakes and rivers have a restricted connection, such as a perched channel entry or levee. Basins inland of the main flow system are hydraulically isolated. Restricted and isolated types are referred to as perched basins. Water level fluctuation of perched basins is independent of the main flow system except during episodic floods.Reference 60

The flow of the Peace River has been regulated since 1968 by the W.A.C. Bennett Dam in BC. Flow regulation has reduced the frequency, duration and magnitude of Peace River flow contributions to the delta in summerReference 61 and has reduced the frequency of ice-jam flooding in the spring.Reference 62 Public concern following dam construction led to construction of outflow weirs to emulate high river stages, and dam outflow modification has been employed to augment ice-jam flooding of the delta.Reference 63

In addition to hydroelectric flow regulation, climate change and variability also influence the hydrology of the delta; warmer, drier conditions have led to earlier drying-out of the perched wetlands on the delta which then requires more frequent recharge from the Peace River and thick winter ice formation to cause the ice-jam floods.Reference 59, Reference 62, Reference 64, Reference 65, Reference 66. There have only been four major ice-jam events on the Peace River post-regulation and the corresponding decrease of floods and increased drying-out has led to reductions in wetland habitat.Reference 67 A continued reduction in ice-jam flood frequency, a shorter ice season, and a decrease in winter ice thickness are predicted over the next century.Reference 66 In addition, the delta faces stress from multiple upstream developments, including forestry, agriculture, hydroelectric dams and the oil sands.Reference 58 Contamination is both an ecological and human health concern in the delta and the community of Fort Chipewyan, where concentrations of contaminants such as arsenic, mercury, and PAHs appear to be rising.Reference 68, Reference 69

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Key finding 4
Lakes and rivers

National key finding
Trends over the past 40 years influencing biodiversity in lakes and rivers include seasonal changes in magnitude of stream flows, increases in river and lake temperatures, decreases in lake levels, and habitat loss and fragmentation.

The relatively flat Boreal Plains Ecozone+ region has several large river systems and thousands of interconnected lakes. The region flows into three major river drainage basins: eastward into the Nelson River, north-eastward into Hudson Bay, and northward to Great Slave Lake (Figure 20 in the Nutrient loading key finding). Large lakes that fall within the ecozone+ boundary include Lake Winnipegosis, Lake Winnipeg, and part of Lake Manitoba. Trends in lakes and rivers in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ include decreased stream flow and water levels and an increase in water allocations. The main drivers of these trends are climate change and industrial development.

Climate change impacts: stream flows, temperature and water levels

The reduction of freshwater predicted by climate change models may be the most serious and imminent effect of climate warming.Reference 70 Although increases in precipitation to the western Prairie provinces are predicted, these will not make up for the increase in evaporation forecasted with warming temperatures. Western Prairie provinces' rivers originate in the Rocky Mountains, including many rivers in the western portion of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+; these rivers rely on deep snowpack and glacial melt to maintain flow. As glaciers recede and snowpacks diminish, groundwater and surface runoff into these rivers will also subside and contribute to lower flows. Reduced volumes of water in rivers and lakes will result in less water for human use and in increased concentrations of nutrients. Nutrient loading can lead to larger algal blooms, and increases in waterborne pathogens which can be detrimental to the ecosystem and to drinking water.Reference 71

Streamflow monitoring from 1961 to 2003 at 21 hydrometric stations in the Boreal Plains indicate that many streams in the ecozone+ are experiencing decreasing flows.Reference 58 For example, flows are lower in the Athabasca River and Beaver River (Figure 10) with a decrease of 30% relative to the median flow for all months but April. These decreased streamflows correspond with warmer temperatures and less precipitation over the same time period,Reference 53, Reference 72 and less precipitation fell in 2003 than in 1900 across the ecozone+. Shifts in the timing and magnitude of the spring freshet (inundation of water discharge due to spring melt) have occurred in the Beaver River, where discharge has peaked in April in the past and, although there is still a peak in April, another peak occurs mid-June (Figure 10). Other studies examining streamflow dynamics in the Peace–Athabasca river system corroborate these observed trends. The average summer (May to August) flows of the Athabasca River decreased by 20% between 1958 and 2003,Reference 73 and in contrast to the Beaver River, spring freshet occurred earlier in the Peace–Athabasca catchments over time (Figure 11).Reference 63

Figure 10. Streamflow by month for 1961–1982 (light blue) and 1983–2003 (dark blue) for two representative rivers in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.
Graphs-Streamflow by month for 1961–1982  and 1983–2003
Source: Cannon et al., 2011Reference 72
Long description for Figure 10

This figure, composed of two line graphs, presents the streamflow by month. Streamflow in both the Athabasca  and Beaver rivers was greater at all times of the year in 1961-1982 than in 1983-2003. Both show peaks in the summer months and valleys during January-February.

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Figure 11. Long-term relative change in summer flow (May-August) in the Athabasca River downstream of Fort McMurray, AB from 1958 to 2003.
Graph- Long-term relative change in summer flow
Long description for Figure 11

This line graph shows an increase in streamflow until the mid-1970s when it decreased to 75% of its initial streamflow by 2003.

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Temperature increases across the prairie provincesReference 53 have likely increased evaporation rates in prairie lakes, decreasing water levels and increasing salinity through evapoconcentration.Reference 74 Water level and salinity changes can have large impacts on biological communities within lakes, particularly phytoplankton and zooplankton, which are sensitive to changes in salinity.Reference 75 Although there are no available ecozone+-wide trends on water levels and salinity of lakes, there is evidence that changes are occurring. For example, increasing salinity, which is correlated with temperature increases (and associated evaporation) and precipitation decreases, has been shown in two lakes in central Saskatchewan over the past 75 years.Reference 74 These salinity increases have likely caused a 30% loss of macrobenthos diversity over the same time period.Reference 74 Water levels have decreased since the 1960s in several closed-basin lakes in the semi-arid Prairie region of Canada, three of which fall within the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ (Figure 12).Reference 76 Although land-use changes play a role in lake levels, temperatures, particularly the increase in spring time temperatures, are the main driver of the declining water levels in this area.Reference 76

Figure 12. Water levels for Muriel, Lower Mann, and Upper Mann lakes, AB from the 1960s to 2006.
Graph-Water levels for Muriel, Lower Mann, and Upper Mann lakes, AB from the 1960s to 2006
Source: Van der Kamp et al. (2008).Reference 77
Long description for Figure 12

All three lakes declined over time; Muriel and Upper Mann lakes by 4 m and Lower Mann Lake by 3 ma.

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Water stresses

An increasing number of human activities pose threats to Canada's lakes and rivers,Reference78, Reference79 including: water control structures such as dams;Reference 80 water use and allocation; Reference 81 chemical contamination impacting water quality;Reference 82 and climate changeReference 1(discussed above).

Dams

Water control structures are one of the greatest threats to freshwater ecosystems because they change the flow of water and lead to habitat discontinuity and fragmentation.Reference 83, Reference 84 There were  14 large dams (>10 m in height) built in this ecozone+ between 1950 and 1990.Reference 85 The W.A.C. Bennett Dam on the Peace River is perhaps the most well-known and most controversial dam affecting this ecozone+. No summarized ecozone+-wide trend or status data were found on dams/river diversions; however, data from the provincial energy agencies on hydro projects could be compiled for future reports.

Water usage and allocation

In the Boreal Plains Ecozone+, the amount of water allocated for human use was increasing as of 2006, yet still below 1% of the average annual flow for the Peace/Slave, SK, North Saskatchewan, SK, and the Churchill, MB basins.Reference 86, Reference 87 In 2006, 4% of the Athabasca River Basin's average annual flow was allocated for human use, mainly for oil and gas and commercial developments (Figure 13).Reference 87 Oil sands open pit mining, steam-assisted gravity drainage, and conventional oil production rely heavily on water inputs drawn from surface freshwater resources such as rivers.Reference 88 Continued development in the oil sands region in Alberta combined with climate change could compromise water security in the Athabasca River Basin in the future.Reference 89

Figure 13. Sectoral water allocation of the Athabasca river basin, 1950 to 2010.
Graph-Sectoral water allocation of the Athabasca river basin, 1950 to 2010
Source: Alberta Environment, 2006,Reference 87 updated by M. Seneka (April 2012)
Long description for Figure 13

This bar graph shows the following information:

Sectoral water allocation of the Athabasca river basin, 1950-2010. Water volume (m2)
YearOther UsesMunicipalIndustrial
(Oil, Gas)
AgricultureCommercial
19509,728,460125,8100823,1300
196015,309,5701,585,093886,8301,173,14974,012,620
197015,309,6903,610,28855,119,6102,298,82878,015,260
198019,542,37020,365,73098,641,2105,315,304140,393,800
199022,877,92043,356,904104,816,3228,021,626196,380,830
200023,487,23345,524,565194,473,34210,805,121219,246,648
200423,877,12447,150,179516,122,52812,491,538222,402,886
200524,356,74246,743,872481,573,48813,505,395238,724,969
200627,243,214111,995,356485,417,19114,355,537238,698,337
200727,838,572113,421,511588,905,77214,374,516244,434,082
200827,691,64048,790,844591,717,44113,282,850241,304,155
200928,028,40949,065,009628,050,77613,605,824240,831,934
201028,718,76748,685,407727,037,53113,458,903158,550,919

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Water quality

Water quality in lakes and rivers can be measured by examining the amount of metals, nutrients, bacteria (fecal coliforms), and pesticides in a water body. Changes in water quality can occur when nutrients and/or pollutants are added through agricultural run-off, sewage effluent, air emissions that are later deposited on earth, and industrial waste. Ecozone+-wide status and trend data on water quality were unavailable; however, refer to Nutrient loading section for impacts on nutrient loading and its effects on lakes and rivers in the Boreal Plains ecozone+. In general, nutrient inputs from agriculture are increasing, most notably in the Red River drainage, which is influencing the frequency of algal blooms in Lake Winnipeg, MB. The data for assessing trends in chemical contaminants in river and lake ecosystems in the ecozone+ are sparse.Reference 90 Localized data suggest contaminants are increasing in some areas; a more detailed discussion of contaminants in the ecozone+ is covered in the Contaminants section.

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Key finding 7
Ice across biomes

National key finding
Declining extent and thickness of sea ice, warming and thawing of permafrost, accelerating loss of glacier mass, and shortening of lake-ice seasons are detected across Canada's biomes. Impacts, apparent now in some areas and likely to spread, include effects on species and food.

Ice cover plays a fundamental role in the structure of freshwater ecosystems,Reference 91, Reference 92, Reference 93, Reference 94, Reference 95 and can cause both direct and indirect changes to the hydrological regime of lakes and rivers (for example refer to Peace–Athabasca Delta Case Study). Consequently, these changes impact biotic and abiotic processes in aquatic ecosystems.Reference 96 Available data suggest the ice season is shortening in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+. Permafrost is also declining and has completely melted from the southern extent of its historical range.Reference 84, Reference 85

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Lake and river ice

Despite the importance of ice processes to freshwater ecosystems (reviewed in Prowse and Culp, 2003),Reference 96 long-term biological monitoring data during the ice season were limited at the ecozone+-wide scale and few trends were available. Six lakes in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+tended towards later freeze-up dates between 1970–2005, but this trend was significant only for Churchill Lake, SK. Freeze-up on Churchill Lake occurred 0.5 days later per year between 1970 and 1985, totalling 10 days later after 25 years.Reference 97 Freeze-up occurred 12–13 days later on the Red River, MB, in the 20th century compared to the 19thcentury.Reference 98, Reference 99 Finally, freeze-up on Lake Athabasca in Alberta occurred 1.25 days per year later between 1965–1990, for difference of more than 30 days.Reference 100

The ice season is also changing because of trends towards earlier ice break-up. From 1961–1990, the timing of ice break-up occurred significantly earlier in Bear and Lesser Slave lakes, AB.100 These tendencies towards earlier break-up continued, although not significantly, from 1971–2000.Reference 100 Ice break-up occurred 10 days earlier in the Red River, MB, during the 20thcentury compared to the 19thcentury.Reference 100 In Lake Winnipeg, MB, there were no significant trends prior to 1970 in ice break-up but since 1970, ice break up has occurred earlier in the year (Figure 14).Reference 97 These trends are consistent with increasing annual temperatures since 1950, particularly in spring (refer to the Climate change section).

Figure 14. Trend in lake ice break-up dates before (dark blue circles) and after (light blue squares) 1970 for Lake Winnipeg, MB.
Graph-Trend in lake ice break-up dates for Lake Winnipeg
Source: Latifovic and Pouliot, 2007Reference 101
Long description for Figure 14

This scatterplot shows the date of lake ice break-up. A trend line indicates no significant difference between 1950 to 1070. Between 1970 and 2007, the trend shows an earlier break-up by 10 days.

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Permafrost

The northern reaches of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+are within the sporadic permafrost zone in Canada (Figure 15). In 2003 it was estimated that 37.5% of land covered by bogs and 9.1% of land covered by fens have localized permafrost (frozen peatlands) in the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.Reference 102 However, over the last century, permafrost has completely thawed or shrunk in some locations, especially at the southern limit of the permafrost zone.Reference 102, Reference 103 For example, 32–70% of the permafrost field sites in Alberta have degraded over the last 100–150 years.Reference 102, Reference 103 In northern Manitoba in the neighbouring Boreal Shield Ecozone+, tree ring analysis revealed that boreal peatland permafrost thaw accelerated significantly (200 to 300%) between 1995–2002 relative to rates from 1941–1991.Reference 86

Figure 15. Permafrost map for Canada.
Permafrost map for Canada.
Source: adapted from Heginbottom, 1995Reference 104
Long description for Figure 15

This map presents the distribution of continuous, extensive discontinuous, sporadic, and mountain permafrost throughout Canada in the 1990s. Continuous permafrost extended across Northern Canada, including the archipelago of northern islands, to the southern shoreline of Hudson's Bay. A thin strip of extensive discontinuous permafrost bordered the southern limit of the continuous permafrost zone. Sporadic permafrost was located along the northern limit of British Columbia, AB, MB, ON, and QC. The northern edge of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+ was composed of sporadic permafrost. The western limit of the ecozone+ was composed of mountain permafrost.

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Permafrost melting could have several severe ecological consequences. It is anticipated that permafrost thaw depth will continue to increase with increases in air temperature, further reducing the extent of permafrost throughout the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.Reference 105 The predicted decrease in permafrost will result in increased methane emissions,Reference 106 increased net carbon storage in peatmoss, and loss of wetland plant diversity where permafrost bogs produce some of the most bryologically diverse peatland ecosystem types in western Canada.Reference 107 In addition, permafrost melting will result in large-scale changes in hydrological dynamics, changing the type and expression of wetlands across the northern boundary of the Boreal Plains Ecozone+.Reference 108 Melting permafrost and collapse of frozen peatlands may flood the land, replacing forest ecosystems with wet sedge meadows, bogs, ponds and fens as is happening in northern Quebec.Reference 109, Reference 110

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References

Reference 1

Lake Winnipeg Stewardship Board. 2011. Lake and watershed facts [online]. (Accessed 25 February, 2012).

Return to reference 1

Reference 13

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